Can we in India imagine an event similar to that staged in Berlin on May 10, 1933, when student groups affiliated with the ruling Nazi Party collected tens of thousands of books and then, with the active encouragement of Nazi police, burned them in a massive pyre? Why did they do that, you might ask?
Their answer was simple: these books contained ideas that were “un-German,” that is, they did not fit the Nazi definition of the Fatherland and of citizenship.
This pyre of books was a spectacular announcement that the brute power of the state would make sure that all educational institutions would teach only the Nazi definition of German-ness, no more and no less.
All competing ideas about the history and the nation or its peoples were to be quelled, just as they were to be banished from the law courts and other institutions of governance.
In future, any ideas that challenged Nazi definitions of nationalism were to be crushed by closely monitoring German citizens.
We all know what followed: arrests, deportations, concentration camps, the extermination of minorities.
It is indeed difficult to contemplate such an event, and worse, such a future, in India.
However, recent events at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and at other universities and institutions of higher learning force us to think again about the relevance of such historical precedents.
As is well known, some ideological mentors of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and its ancillary organisations, including the Bhartiya Janta Party, believed strenuously that Nazi methods of cleansing and purifying the German nation were appropriate for enforcing their visions of the Indian nation too.
Both VD Savarkar and MS Golwalkar admired Adolf Hitler’s treatment of minorities in Germany, and their language, when they talk about “foreign races” in India, derives from his speeches on Jews and other minorities persecuted by the Nazis.
Further, as the historian Marzia Casolari has shown, another RSS stalwart, BS Moonje, met the Italian Fascist Benito Mussolini and then helped mould the RSS along militarised, fascist lines.
Are these founding histories even relevant today, you might ask? After all, this BJP government is led by a prime minister who wishes to prove his techno-managerial credentials and to show he is open to capital investments and innovative ideas from across the world.
Take “Make in India,” you might say – this is not the work of an RSS ideologue but of a moderniser who wishes to put the ugly and socially disruptive elements of Hindutva ideology (as well as his own tarnished past) behind him.
Let’s grant for a minute that this is the case, and that Narendra Modi now thinks like an entrepreneur and policy planner rather than as a man who believes that the purity of the Hindu nation can only be safeguarded when minorities of all kinds are reduced to their proper station in life.
Why then has there been no word from him or his office as his ambitious, well-publicised attempts to bring transnational capital and know-how to India have been rushed off the front pages of the newspapers in favour of stories about his inept home minister’s bullying of college students?
There is only one story about India circulating abroad at this moment, and it is not “Make in India.” Over 450 professors in the world’s most important universities have signed a strong statement that condemns the heavy-handedness of government action and offers solidarity with the faculty and students at JNU.
Each day brings more expressions of solidarity and concern from academic and professional associations in the United States and Britain.
This is exactly the sort of publicity that industrialists and managers in the US and Europe read and fear (remember that it is universities that produce all kinds of innovative research sponsored by government and corporate funds, and it is university communities who are viewing events at JNU with alarm).
Any number of news reports and editorial opinions in major newspapers and television channels abroad are describing this attack on university autonomy and self-governance as only the most recent of several instances of the government’s attempts to curb freedoms of speech and thought, and thus to stifle opposition.
No one wants to make anything in an India where different elements of the government cannot agree on what India should be: a modernising, internationalising nation devoted to a plurality of political opinions and open to all manner of debates or a nation so caught up in atavistic modes of thought that its government and ruling party care nothing for destroying the very institutions that will shape its future.
Various spokesmen of the BJP have trundled out two terms to justify the Delhi Police crackdown on JNU and their arrest of the JNU Students Union President Kanhaiya Kumar: “sedition” and “anti-national.”
As editorials in mainstream Indian newspapers have made clear, and as legal luminaries like former Attorney General of India Soli Sorabjee and one of the senior-most constitutional jurists in the country, Fali Nariman, have argued, the charge of sedition will not stick.
The British colonial regime bequeathed to us the hideously antiquated law governing sedition that successive governments in India continue to misuse.
Britain itself has repealed this law, for it undermines the robust political debate crucial to the functioning of modern democracy. In any case, events in the last few days have shown us that it is not JNU students and their slogans, however unpalatable they might be for many, which are a threat to constitutional democracy in India. That threat is embodied in the actions of the “lawyers,” supposedly officers of the court who have sworn to uphold the Constitution, who laid siege to Patiala House and beat journalists, the under-trial Kanhaiya Kumar, as well as those who had turned out in support of him.
They did so in direct defiance of a Supreme Court directive that had commissioned the Delhi Police to make sure that due processes of law were respected. The Delhi Police has a long history of being able to quell any gathering of violent people; this is the one occasion when they turned into passive spectators.
If Indians come to believe that the orders of magistrates and judges, including those who sit on our highest court, are to be flouted with impunity by the police, lawyers, or other government functionaries, then it is not only the law of the land that is threatened.
Few of the wondrous investors that the Modi government is wooing will find comforting the idea that, in the heart of Delhi (not to speak of the provincial areas where they might locate their manufacturing units), the criminal justice system is only as robust as a handful of violent goons.
They will take seriously, as I have said before, the mounting anger and revulsion expressed by their leading scientists and educators for the brutality and ignorance sanctioned by minions of the ruling party in India.
No one will put their faith – and certainly not their money – into an India where politicians and ideologues of the BJP routinely justify – and occasionally call for – violence against students and minorities. What they will note is not the invitingly high-tech hashtag #MakeinIndia but the much more forbidding, visceral #HateinIndia.
This article was originally published at Scroll.in and has been reproduced here with permission.
Suvir Kaul is AM Rosenthal Professor, Department of English, University of Pennsylvania and currently a Visiting Fellow at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute for Advanced Study at JNU.